Friday, December 23, 2011

Exploring the Solentiname Archipelago in Nicaragua

Photo by Tabla
The Solentiname Archipelago is a collection of 36 small islands located in the southeastern portion of Lake Nicaragua, just nine miles west of the port city of San Carlos. The islands range in size from small uninhabited rocky outcrops to larger islands a few miles in length. The three larger islands include Mancarrón, San Fernando, and La Venada, with only the first two offering adequate facilities for tourists. Although modern amenities such as electricity and running water are rare on the rest of the islands, the overall serenity, abundant wildlife and fantastic tropical landscape makes the islands worth visiting.  
Photo by Roman Bonnefoy
In 1966, the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal arrived on the largest island of Mancarrón to establish a communal society and spread his overall political and religious beliefs. In addition to his influence and teachings, the few residents were also urged to view their surroundings and put their impressions onto canvas. According to a Stanford University article about the island, “Cardenal's project was based on Christian liberation theology and principles of social justice. Róger Pérez de la Rocha, a respected painter from Managua, was invited to Solentiname to teach painting techniques, while encouraging individual style and thought.” The end result was surprising and incredible with entire families painting everything that they saw. These isolated islands have since become the center of Nicaragua's legendary primitive art movement.

Today, the population of the islands is approximately 1,000, which consists mostly of fishermen, families of artists, and hard-working farmers who grow everything from vegetables to coffee and cacao. For visitors, the islands offer excellent fishing in its surrounding dark-blue waters, amazing bird-watching in its dense tropical forests, and most importantly, a first-hand look into the slower-paced lifestyles that have been relatively untouched by modern society.

Travel to the Solentiname Islands
Before exploring the islands, it is important to keep in mind that only way to get to the islands is through the city of San Carlos near the mouth of the Río San Juan. The quickest (and most expensive) way is by plane from Managua followed by a two-hour boat ride to Mancarrón. La Costeña Airlines offers daily flights from Managua to San Carlos for approximately US$55 each way departing at 1 p.m. The flight takes approximately 45 minutes. Make sure to check schedules ahead of time to avoid any problems or delays. More information can be found at their website:
Otherwise, visitors on a budget who also have a lot of time can take a direct public bus from Managua to San Carlos. Four buses make the patience-testing, nine-hour journey from Managua’s Mayoreo terminal via Juigalpa for a fee of approximately US$7. There are, of course, connections from a series of other buses from anywhere else in the country for relatively little money.
Photo by Raymond Helmi
Once at the docks in San Carlos, boat travel is offered in two different types: the public boats (that depart once on Tuesdays and Fridays around 11 a.m.) or the more expensive private boats that can depart at any time. The difference in price is substantial since the public boats cost approximately US$5 one-way while the private boats can cost between US$80 and $120 for a round-trip excursion. The good part about the private boat is that the fee includes up to eight passengers and the journey can be practically custom make. But make sure to negotiate your fee ahead of time to prevent any price gauging. The journey takes approximately three hours. If you are traveling independently and by public boat, keep in mind that the return trip departs at approximately 3 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Exploring the Main Islands
Photo of the Iglesia Solentiname's Altar
by Los Browns
Isla Mancarrón - The main island of the archipelago is also the largest with an area of approximately 12 square-miles. It also includes the highest point of all the islands, which is 853 feet above the lake. Located close to the main dock is Ernesto Cardenal's unassuming adobe church known as the Iglesia Solentiname. In addition to its simple interior, the exterior of the church consists of a Sandinista monument and the tomb of Alejandro Guevara, a well-known and revered rebel leader. The nearby Solentiname Development Association offers a wide variety of art along with some artist studios, books, and plenty of information about Cardenal’s influence on the island. It is one of the two best locations to purchase artwork with the other being Isla San Fernando. According to the Solentiname Alliance, visitors can stay at several overnight accommodations on the island: Hotel Mancarrón, Hospedaje Mire Estrellas, Buen Amigo, and the Hospedaje Comunidad de Solentiname. Originally a peaceful refuge for artists, this hospedaje is run by Cardenal himself, and the rustic cabins are situated on quiet grounds with access to a library and reading room.
Photo by Vista Cinchona
Isla San Fernando – Also known as La Isla Elvis Chavarria (for a young martyr killed in the revolution), this is the second largest island in the archipelago. In addition to its fairly large community, it includes the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname, which is a museum, art gallery, cultural center, and arboretum all combined in one location. Admission is approximately US$1 per person and the hours of operation are generally 7 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m. The island is also home to one of a well-known family of artists known as the Piñedas. Accommodations include the Albergue Solentiname and the Don Julio Lodge. The Albergue Solentiname offers eight guest rooms with shared baths, access to a quiet porch, and plenty of water activities. The Don Julio Lodge provides more rustic accommodations in a house overlooking the lake. Both accommodations also provide guests with guided fishing trips and other custom-made excursions simply by asking.

Isla La Venada – This island is also known as La Isla Donald Guevara. Although it is much more rustic that its larger counterparts, the main reason to visit is to view the fascinating underwater cave called La Cueva del Duende. Located on the northern end of the island, it is accessible only by boat and it is best to go with a guide who knows the landscape. The highlight of the cave is the wall markings that show a representation of the dead traveling to “the other side.”

Tours of the Solentiname Islands

Solentiname Tours - Based in Managua, this reputable company offers a variety of guided tours throughout Nicaragua including two Solentiname tours: the Mancarrón Island Circuit Tour and the Artisans and Painters Excursions. The Mancarrón Island Circuit Tour includes a walking tour of the site around the Hotel Mancarrón with visits to Ernesto Cardenal's church, an artists' colony (El Refugio), an ancient cemetery with petroglyphs and a visit to a beautiful overlook (La Reconciliación). The Artisans and Painters Excursions includes guided travel by panga (motorized canoe) to a number of local artists' studios where visitors can interact with the artists as well as purchase their important artwork. More information about their company and tours can be found at their website:
Nicaragua Adventures – This award-winning company was named the 2011 Condé Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist for Nicaragua. Based in Granada, it offers a three-day, San Juan River and Solentiname Islands tour that includes roundtrip flights from Managua, all boat transportation to and from San Carlos, lunch at the Hotel Mancarrón, and a visit to Ernesto Cardenal's church and artisan village. The company has been praised by The New York Times and Outside magazine, just to name a few. More information can be found at their website:
Tours Nicaragua – This Managua-based company provides a long list of tours throughout the country. It currently includes a six-day Solentiname, Granada and Leon tour with a full-day motorboat tour of the islands on Day Two. The overall tour includes all transportation arrangements (including flights to and from Managua), meals and hotel accommodations. More information can be found at their website:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Exploring Belize City in Belize

Photo by Dana Kosko
Belize City is a bustling port city located at the mouth of the Belize River on the coast of central Belize. Once the nation’s capital, it still serves as the country’s primary port as well as its financial and industrial hub even though the capital was moved to Belmopan in 1970. It is also best known as the drop-off point for thousands of cruise ship passengers who come to enjoy the country’s wealth of historical and natural attractions. Although the city itself was once known as a place to quickly leave, it has since become a tourist destination in itself offering an interesting mix of British colonial past with Caribbean culture complete with Victorian architecture and narrow streets, all within sight of the sea.

Unlike the rest of the Central American countries, Belize was not colonized by Spain. Instead, the Spanish failed to clearly mark the southern boundary of the Yucatan peninsula, which allowed fleets of notorious pirates to attack the Spanish trade routes and ships filled with gold and other treasures. The pirates would make their attack and then find refuge along the coast of Belize and what was known as British Honduras. But in September 1798, the British finally claimed victory over the Spanish at the Battle of St. George’s Caye, which help solidify the region as a British colony.
Belize City, originally known as Belize Town, was established as the first European settlement in mainland Belize. A major trading post for the British lumber industry, it harvested the wealth of wood from the surrounding jungles and served as a haven for workers who spent their hard-earned pay enjoying the rum and other frivolities. In addition, the city has survived a wide variety of disasters ranging from fires and epidemics to devastating hurricanes such as Hattie in 1961 and Richard in 2010.

Today, visitors will not only find the country’s only cruise ship passenger terminal in Belize City, but the largest hotels (with substantial conference facilities), plenty of restaurants, museums, and other historical attractions. Best of all, it offers a blend of old-world British colonial charm mixed with Garífuna and Mestizo cultures, which can be seen in everything from the food to music. The city is completely worth taking an extra day or two to enjoy it before venturing out toward the inland Mayan ruins and the clear-blue waters off shore.
Travel Information - The country’s official language is English and the government is naturally modeled after the British Westminster System, with the Queen of England as the official head of state and a prime minister as the head of government. The Belize dollar is the official currency of Belize and it is generally exchanged at two BZ dollars to one US dollar. Although most tourists arrive by way of cruise ship, the city is also served by both the Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport (located northwest of the city in Ladyville) and the Belize City Municipal Airport within the city itself. The international airport offers direct international flights from Atlanta (Delta Airlines), Dallas and Miami (American Airlines), Houston and Newark (Continental Airlines), and Charlotte (US Airways). For regional flights into the city, there are also a variety of flights on Maya Island Air, TACA Airlines, and Tropic Air.

Major Attractions in Belize City

Photo by Bernt Rostad
Museum of Belize -Located on Gabourel Lane in downtown Belize City, this two-story brick building was once a British colonial prison. Built in 1857, it housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals until 1993. But it was beautifully transformed into the country’s first national museum in 2002 where Belizean treasures are now exhibited in what used to be the cells for inmates complete with original brickwork and bars on the windows. The permanent collection ranges from 600 B.C. to A.D. 1500 with spectacular artifacts that include everything from Mayan artifacts, a colorful collection of insects and butterflies, rare stamps, and even a replica of the famous Jade Head discovered at the ruins of Altun Ha. As a reminder of its darker past, one cell has been restored to give visitors a glimpse into the world of prison life. Opening hours are from Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission price is US$10 per person.

House of Culture - Located on Regent Street, this was the residence of the governor-general until Belize gained its independence from Great Britain in 1981. Built in 1814, it was originally called the Government House, which also included the administrative offices for the government. In 1996, it was renamed the House of Culture and opened to the public. Visitors can take daily tours where they can view the original furnishings and silverware as well as rotating exhibitions by well-known Belizean artists. The setting is naturally a popular venue for social events and formal parties. It is open seven-days-a-week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Photo by Bjorn Torrissen
St. John's Cathedral - Located at the intersection of Regent and Albert Streets (directly across the street from the House of Culture) is the oldest surviving building of Belize's colonial period. Dating back to 1812, it took more than eight years to build and it still includes the original architecture with its stained-glass windows, ornate wood carvings and pews, and even a historic organ. The church is also Central America's oldest Anglican Church. It is open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is free.

Photo by Max Cacher
Yarborough Cemetery - Dating back to 1781, this cemetery is located a couple of blocks southwest of St. John’s Cathedral. Originally used to bury many well-known Belizean residents, it had simply run out of burial plots by 1890, after which it was abandoned. But in 1999, the cemetery was renovated with beautiful landscaping, a perimeter fence, and the stabilization of all of the headstones complete with a marble wall with the names of all of those buried there. It is open daily to the public but it is highly advisable that visitors explore the grounds during daylight hours due to safety.

Photo by T. Bachner
The Supreme Court Building - Located on Regent Street, this courthouse was completed in 1926 to replace the original one destroyed by fire in 1818. It still holds several sessions of the Supreme Court on the second floor while the first floor includes a daily magistrate’s court. The courthouse is not open to the public, but the exterior of the building with its four clocks and intricate ironwork are worth stopping for a picture.

Bliss Institute
The Legacy of Baron Bliss - In 1926, an English Baron and sailor named Henry Edward Bliss sailed to Belize and completely fell in love with the country and its people. Two months afterwards, he passed away and left more than $2 million in a trust fund for the people of Belize. Income from the fund subsequently paid for everything from roads and buildings to cultural centers and schools. He was buried at Fort George Point at the entrance to the Belize River and a lighthouse and monument was erected in his honor. The country’s first theater (appropriately named the Bliss Institute) has become a prominent center for the performing arts. The theater is located on the Southern Foreshore.

Swing Bridge - Built in 1922, it is the only functioning manually-operated swing bridge in the world. The bridge, located in downtown Belize City, has become a major attraction. It swings open once every morning (5:30 a.m.) and evening (5:30 p.m.) to allow traditional fishing and sailboats to pass upriver. The bridge offers great vantage points for visitor who can observe everything from activity at the mouth of the Belize River to the cruise ships anchored just offshore.

Photo by Bjorn Torrissen
Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center - Founded in 1983, this zoo and education center is located at Mile 30 just off the Western Highway. It includes 29 acres of tropical landscape with approximately 125 different native animals that include mammals (ocelots, jaguars and black howler monkeys), birds (toucans, macaws, and egrets), and reptiles (iguanas, crocodiles and boa constrictors). The zoo also serves as a refuge for wildlife that have been orphaned, injured or simply mistreated. It offers excellent guides and a wide variety of education programs that focus on wildlife conservation and rehabilitation. The zoo is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and admission is US$15 for adults and US$5 for children. Fees for Belizean residents are BZ$5 for adults and BZ$1 for children. More information can be found at their website:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Exploring the Ruins at León Viejo in Nicaragua

Photo by Helmut Haefner
Located approximately 37 miles north of Managua in Nicaragua is León Viejo, one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World. Although its ruins consist of mostly the three-foot-high walls of its original structures, it provides a unique example of its original layout and a glimpse into its storied past. In fact, few 16th-century cities are preserved intact and unaltered by subsequent rebuilding and this one of the reasons it was designated a World Heritage Site in 2000.

Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, he was sent from Panamá by Pedrarias Dávila to conquer the Pacific zone northwards toward what is now El Viejo. The city quickly became one of the most important in the region with gold and silver from Nicaragua and valuables from other countries traded frequently by its merchants. But unfortunately, for Córdoba, he did not enjoy his thriving capital for long because he was executed on the orders of Pedrarias for treason in 1526.

The city reached its peak of development around 1545, under the leadership of Governor Rodrigo de Contreras. According to UNESCO, it was still relatively small and its Spanish population never exceeded 200. But after an eruption by the looming Momotombo Volcano in 1578, (combined with the raging inflation to drive the richer inhabitants away), much of the population had moved away. By 1603, there were only 10 houses left with the remaining ones abandoned and allowed to fall into ruins. Its final demise occurred in January 1610, when a massive earthquake destroyed most of the city. As a result, the population relocated approximately 20 miles west and established what is now known as the city of León. The older city was gradually buried by the continuous explosions of volcanic ash and it remained hidden until it was rediscovered in 1967.

Getting to León Viejo

Visitors to León Viejo can get there by taking the bus to the town of La Paz Centro, located between Managua and León. From there, a local bus departs for the site. But keep in mind that the last bus from La Paz to León departs at 2 p.m., so it is best to come as early as possible if you are based in León. For visitors with their own car, the site can be reached by turning right at a well-marked sign just before the town of La Paz Centro. After that, it is approximately a 20-minute drive to the site. The site is open daily from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is C$12 for Nicaraguan residents and US$2 for foreigners. The US$2 fee even includes a guided tour.

Attractions in León Viejo
Despite its role as a thriving capital, the León Viejo was never more than a collection of rustic buildings, most of them built with the same material as those used by the area’s indigenous people: wood, bamboo, and mud. Only the church, convents, and houses of the governor as well as other richer citizens were stronger and more elaborate.

La Merced Ruins
The site itself covers an approximate area of 2,600-feet-by-1,600-feet and among the ruins excavated since the site’s rediscovery in 1967 are the Plaza Mayor, the cathedral (with a central nave and main altar at the eastern end), and the La Merced Convent, which includes five rooms enclosed by a wall that directly connects the building with the convent church. The La Merced church is noted as the site where the headless remains of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba were discovered next to his executioner Pedraris Dávila. In November 2000, the graves of Nicaragua’s first three bishops were also uncovered there and their remains are now interred in large coffins carved by the well-known Nicaraguan sculptor, Federico Matus.

Located just east of the main ruins are the remains of an old fort, which was built during the beginning of the settlement. It subsequently fell into ruins within two decades, which was an example of the area’s overall peacefulness. One of the largest buildings in the city was the Royal Foundry and Mint, which consists of 11 rooms and several private houses. But it too fell into decline after a series of devastating fires destroyed the structure, which was only built with indigenous materials.

The remaining structures include the foundations of several houses and visitors can explore the site with or without a guide. The history of the former city is also provided by many informative signs located throughout the site. For those who enjoy exploring historic sites, León Viejo offers plenty to see within a several-hour visit.

Tours of León Viejo

Oro Travel - This tour company, based in Granada, offers a daily combine León and León Viejo tour that begins with a visit to the ruins. The tour continues on toward modern-day León with a stop at the cathedral followed by a pleasant walk through the colonial streets and a lunch at a typical Nica restaurant. The tour includes roundtrip transportation, entrance fees, and a bilingual guide. More information can be found at their website:

Nicatime Tours - Based in León, this company offers a León Viejo and Assosoca tour that begins with a tour of the ruins followed by a short hike to the Laguna Asososca, a volcano crater lake where guests on the tour can go for a swim and have a picnic lunch. The tour includes roundtrip transportation, entrance fees and a guide as well as food and drinks. More information can be found at their website:

Va Pues Tours - Based in León, this tour company provides a four-hour León Viejo and Lake Xolotlán tour that includes roundtrip transportation, a bilingual guide, entrance fees, and a complimentary drink. The tours depart twice a day at 8:30 a.m. and at 2 p.m. More information can be found at their website:

Bigfoot Nicaragua - This popular tour company, based in León, offers a León's Three Greatest Attractions tour that includes a visit to the Cerro Negro Volcano, Laguna Asososca, and León Viejo all in one day. The tours depart at 6 a.m. and return at approximately 6 p.m. and includes 4x4 roundtrip transportation with professional driver, a bilingual guide, breakfast, lunch, snacks, and water as well as all safety equipment and entrances fees. More information can be found at their website:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Exploring the Momotombo Volcano in Nicaragua

For airline passengers on their final approach into the Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua, the view lives up to Nicaragua’s slogan of The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. Just south of the city is the steaming Volcán Masaya with its spectacular crater lakes and the northern side of the city includes Lago de Managua, one of the largest lakes in the country. Located on the lake’s northwestern shore is the towering 4,255-foot volcano known as the Volcán Momotombo. This near perfect, cone-shaped stratovolcano is one of the 21 volcanoes  that make up the Maribíos volcanic chain that runs northwest to southeast through the country. It is one of the country’s most famous natural landmarks as well as one of the most challenging to climb due to its sheer size and relentless incline toward the top.

Although it has been relatively quiet for more than a century, the Global Volcanism Program at the Smithsonian Institute states that the Momotombo Volcano has erupted 18 times since its first recorded eruption in 1524. The volcano is mostly noted for its eruptions that consistently threw ash on the town of León Viejo, which was dangerously located at its base. After a violent earthquake occurred in 1610, its inhabitants decided to relocate 19 miles away where they formed the beautiful colonial city now known as León. The older city was gradually buried in volcanic ash and stone and remained hidden until it was re-discovered in 1967.

(Photo by Ormat Technologies)
Today, this young volcano of only 4,500 years continues to vent gas with occasional plumes of smoke. But this quiet giant still poses a threat on the town of Puerto Momotombo as well as other small villages around its base. The volcano has been showing signs of activity over the past decade with gases measured at more than 750-degrees Centigrade with seismic activity ranging as high as 500 times a month. Currently, a geothermal plant, known as the Ormat Momotombo Power Company (headquartered in Reno, Nevada) has found ways to produce electricity from this high amount of heat despite the underlying danger. As of 2010, it provides more than 15 percent of Nicaragua's electrical power while offsetting more than 120,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

Getting to Momotombo

As strange as it seems, the Ormat Momotombo Power Company located at the base of the volcano, serves as the best staging area for the beginning of a climb. Since access to the power plant is usually denied for independent climbers unless they receive a rarely given permit, the best way to climb Momotombo is with a regional tour company. The company pre-arranges a time and takes care of everything from the permit, round-trip transportation, and other special amenities complete with a bilingual guide.

If you choose to take a chance and try your luck independently, then the most accessible route to the plant is through the village of La Paz Centro, located just off the Managua-León highway. There is no public transportation to the plant, although buses do go to León Viejo. From there, you can hike beyond the ruins and head north until you reach the foot of the volcano. Again, this is why a trek to the summit is best done with a tour company.

Exploring the Momotombo Volcano

(Photo by Frejim)
Unlike other relatively accessible volcanoes such as the steaming Volcán Masaya southeast of Managua, or the black, ash-covered Cerro Negro outside of León, Momotombo is an incredibly challenging climb. The trail begins with a graduated and manageable incline through a tropical and sub-tropical dry zone where there are approximately 57 different species of plants that range from quebrachos (with a bark used for its medicinal quality) to a variety of palm trees and shrubs. These lower tropical zones are also home to more than 25 species of animals that include coyotes, deer, iguanas, parrots and even butterflies.

But as you climb higher, the landscape changes dramatically. The lower tropical dry zone transforms into a combination of lava trails and volcanic sand and rocks complete with a final steep ascent at an angle of approximately 45 degrees. This can make it not only treacherous but extremely exhausting for anyone not in a minimum of above-average physical shape. Climbers in excellent physical shape can complete the roundtrip journey in eight to 10 hours but most choose to spread out the climb over two days by camping on the slopes of the summit and then completing the climb early the next morning. Staying overnight is actually a great way to enjoy the trip instead of pushing yourself to possible exhaustion. Just remember that it can become very windy and cold at the campsite, so bring layers and breathable, warm clothing.

After all of the exertion and danger comes the great reward. The crater itself is surprisingly massive, which includes a diameter of approximately 820-feet-by-1,120-feet. Within it are steaming fumaroles that provide other worldly views that reminds you of the possible danger of being there while the summit’s rim provides (on clear days) unforgettable views of the Pacific Ocean, Lake Nicaragua, the cities of León and Managua as well as Matagalpa (more than 60 miles away).

Momotombo Volcano Tours

The following tour companies each offer guided treks to Momotombo with some varying amenities. Again, this is the best way to climb this beautiful and spectacular volcano.

Quetzaltrekkers: Based in León, this company is a non-profit volunteer organization that provides tours and guided hikes in order to raise money for street children in the city of León. The one-day trek to Momotombo begins at 5 a.m. and returns at approximately 6 p.m. All hikes are lead by a minimum of two guides and include all transportation, food, water, entrance fees and a free t-shirt! After the climb, the tour concludes with a refreshing swim in the clear green waters of the Laguna Asososca. More information about the tour can be found at:

Fun “N” Sun Travels: Also based in León, this company provides a one- and two-day Momotombo Tour. The one-day tour includes a drive in a 4X4 vehicle to an altitude of approximately 1,400 feet followed by a six-hour climb on foot to the summit. For those who prefer to the entire climb on foot, it can be arranged. The two-day tour begins at 3 p.m. and arrives at the campsite by sunset. The climb continues before sunrise the next morning and concludes by 2 p.m. All tours include roundtrip transportation, two bilingual tour guides, and entrance permit. More information is provided on their website at: 

(Photo by Julio Tours)
Julio Tours: Based in León, this company offers both a one-day (nine-hour) trek and a two-day Sunset/Sunrise tour that leaves at sunset and concludes the next morning after a night on the slopes. All tours include roundtrip transportation, an English-speaking guide, entrance and permits to the power plant, and lunch. Information about the tours is available at their website:

Tours Nicaragua: Based in Managua, this company offers a seven-day, Volcano Obsession Tour with guided treks across 21 volcanoes! This is only for diehard climbers who want to challenge themselves physically. The Momotombo climb includes one night of camping on its slopes near the summit while the rest of the trips are based in León with hotel accommodations for five nights. In addition to the guided hikes and lodging, all breakfasts and lunches are provided as well as roundtrip transportation and land transfers. As the company states, “All the climbs are non-technical, but not for the faint of heart.” More information can be found at their website:

(Photo by Bigfoot Nicaragua)
Bigfoot Nicaragua: Based in León, this tour company has been featured on Survivor Nicaragua and praised by the New York Times. It offers a one-day Hiking Momotombo Volcano tour that includes 4X4 transportation with professional driver, a bilingual guide, breakfast and lunch as well as snacks and water. All entrance fees are covered and the safety equipment and knowledgeable instruction is provided. The hikes departs at 5 a.m. and returns at approximately 6 p.m. More information is included at their website:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Exploring Los Pueblos Blancos in Nicaragua

Scattered throughout the hills approximately nine miles northwest of Masaya, Nicaragua are a collection of isolated towns known as Los Pueblos Blancos. Meaning White Villages, these small communities received their name because many of the buildings and streets were once constructed with a combination of volcanic rock, water, and limestone that gave them a chalky-white color. In addition, there are stories where many of the buildings were once whitewashed to ward off evil spirits. Unfortunately, most of buildings have since been painted in a variety of colors other than white and the roads have now been paved, but the villages are still an easy, one-day trip for any visitor in either Managua or Masaya. Each village has its own special characteristic and with an average elevation of 1,600 feet, the views of the surroundings are spectacular.

For visitors, one of the most important reasons to come to Los Pueblos Blancos is to shop for the fine arts and crafts produced by its highly skilled residents. Each individual town offers its own signature craft and it becomes immediately obvious what they are by just glancing at the roadside stands when you cross each border. Many of the artists support themselves and their families by selling their work and in several locations, visitors can even watch ceramics and pottery being fired in the on-site kilns. Each workshop produces crafts of all shapes and sizes that range from decorative dishes and vases to intricate wood carvings and rocking chairs. Some items include price tags while others do not. But in both cases, negotiation is highly expected. Unless you are in a hurry, take the time to walk through several workshops before purchasing something (since many of the stores sell the same items) and always bargain because it is part of the overall cultural experience.

The Towns of Los Pueblos Blancos

Catarina - Located at the crossroads of Los Pueblos Blancos, Catarina is mostly known for its excellent mirador (lookout point) as seen in the photo at the top of this article. It provides breathtaking views of Laguna de Apoyo (a volcanic crater lake) as well as the city of Granada and Lake Nicaragua. According to local legend, this viewpoint was one of young Augusto Sandino's favorite places to contemplate decisions and where he received his best ideas when planning the future liberation of the country. Visitors will find many stalls selling everything from t-shirts to arts and crafts as well as some perfectly placed restaurants with some of the best views in the region. But the town’s main crafts are its carved wooden furniture pieces as well as the bright, tropical plants produced by the well-known viveros (greenhouses) that attracts buyers from all over the area. For those arriving by car, safe and secure parking is available for a fee of C20.

San Juan de Oriente – Also known as San Juan de los Platos due to their tradition of producing high-quality ceramics, this picturesque colonial town has actually been in the pottery business for more than 1,000 years, although many its best artists were lost during the colonial period. Fortunately, the Sandinistas in the 1980s made an effort to revive the craft by forming the Artesanos Unidos, a cooperative union that trained locals in everything from using the potter’s wheel and firing the kiln to painting the finished products. The shops line the cobblestone streets and offer an overwhelming number of pottery, decorative pieces, and vases of all sizes as well as wall hangings that resemble little houses (casitas). The most famous workshop is the Cooperativa Quetzalcóatl, but there are at least a couple dozen other places to purchase these crafts. Again, bargaining is expected, so take the time to search out the best deal.

(Photo by Celestemy)
Diría – Located south of San Juan de Oriente, it also includes a mirador even though it is not as popular as Catarina’s. The mirador is located east of the cemetery, just south of the Parroquia San Pedro in the center of town. The church itself was built in 1650 at the location where Cacique (chief) Diriangén of the Dirian tribe first met conquistador Gil González Dávila in 1523. After the Spanish gave Diriangén an ultimatum (with a three-day deadline) to convert to Christianity, he refused and attacked the conquistadors instead. Today, both this town and Diriomo are named after the chief to commemorate his risky but brave act of defiance.

(Photo by Manfut)
Diriomo - Located across the street from Diría, it is known as the Witch Capital of the Meseta. It is known for its tradition of black magic and curanderos (folk healers), who claim to do everything from healing ailments to reading your future (for a negotiable fee). Whether you believe it or not, the healers of Diriomo have remained proud of their skills, even after periods of oppression. Since many of them offer their services directly from their homes, it is best to visit the alcadía (mayor's office) to ask about specific locations. The town is also known for its cajetas (rich fruit-flavored sweets) as well as an alcoholic corn beverage called chicha bruja.

Niquinohomo – Meaning Valley of the Warriors in Náhuatl, this 16th-century Spanish colonial village is known as the birthplace of Augusto César Sandino. A large, bronze statue of Sandino is proudly displayed at the entrance to town and his birthplace and childhood home is located at the northwestern corner of the town’s plaza. It includes a small room with a variety of important artifacts and biographical information of his dramatic and influential life. Admission is free and it is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon, and 2 to 6 p.m.

Masatepe - This colonial town provides more picturesque views of Masaya and centers around its specialty as the rocking chair capital of the country. The town’s former railway station has been transformed into one of the best artisan markets in the area where rows of cane-woven rocking chairs await a new home. Located at the main plaza is the Iglesia San Juan Bautista that offers spectacular views of the Volcán Masaya from its gates. The town is also known for several food specialties such as a soup called mondongo (tripe marinated with oranges and herbs and simmered with vegetables for hours), and tamugas, much like a nacatamale (cornmeal, meat, vegetables and herbs wrapped with banana leaves) but made with sticky rice instead of cornmeal.

San Marcos – Located approximately five miles west of Masatepe, this is the largest town of Los Pueblos Blancos. Compared to its quieter neighboring towns, San Marcos seems busy, mostly due to the student activity from its Ave Maria University. Historically, the town is located on one of the oldest human settlements in Nicaragua, and excavations have unearthed artifacts that date back to 2500 B.C. But it will always be known as the birthplace of Anastasio Somoza García, the original dictator who notoriously led the country through fear and intimidation. Not surprisingly, there are no statues in his honor in the town.